Australian university workforce responses to COVID-19 pandemic: reacting to a short-term crisis or planning for longer term challenges?

By Teresa Tjia, Ian Marshman, Janet Beard and Elizabeth Baré.


Australian universities are facing their greatest challenges since at least the 1930s Depression as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. A significant decline in international student fee revenue and public universities’ inability to access government programs like JobKeeper is having a major impact on university finances and staff and resulting in deep and sustained cost-cutting responses.

With some 57% of total public university expenditure allocated to employment and related costs, workforce savings are an inevitable consequence.

Using publicly available information for the period from early March to 18 September 2020[1], the authors have analysed the workforce response of Australian public universities to COVID-19.  While acknowledging the limitations, the information provides important insights into the actions that universities are taking, particularly in relation to their permanent workforce.

While initially exploring a whole of sector workforce approach through collaboration between universities and the sector’s principal union, the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), the breakdown in negotiations in mid-2020 meant that each university has had to find its own way in reducing employment costs.  Universities with the greatest exposure to international fee revenue losses (those with international student fee revenue greater than $200 million[2]) appear to have been those most prompt to announce savings and job loss targets. Universities experiencing more modest revenue shortfall have in general taken longer to publicly respond.  Universities that have sought and achieved union support for workforce savings appear to have been able to reduce the numbers of job losses by gaining agreement to other savings options, most frequently deferral of salary increases.  At the time of writing, two universities have been successful in achieving staff support for salary increase deferral variations to their enterprise agreement without first gaining the support of the NTEU.

Drawing on media reporting of university responses to date, the financial impact of the pandemic amounts to approximately $3.8 billion for 2020, with overall job loss expectations for continuing appointments amounting to at least 5,600 full-time equivalent (FTE). In addition, a conservative 25% cut in casual and research-only staff could result in a further loss of staff equivalent to 7,500 FTE (which by head count would mean an estimated 17,500 people) out of a total higher education workforce in 2019 of 137,000 FTE including casual staff[3].

The authors identify a number of other factors that appear to be influencing the response of individual universities to drive workforce changes.  These include legacy funding issues now made more severe as a result of the pandemic, university leadership appetite for major organisational change, and recent or current transitions in university leadership.

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Elizabeth Baré and Janet Beard are Honorary Senior Fellows of the LH Martin Institute, Ian Marshman is Honorary Principal Fellow of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Teresa Tjia is an Honorary Fellow of the LH Martin Institute.

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Teresa Tjia
Ian Marshman